By Poulomi Das Mar. 29, 2019
Jordan Peele is an attentive filmmaker with the mind of an anthropologist and there’s ample proof of it in Us. The movie is primarily invested in uncovering what is at stake when our fractured past unleashes itself on a society that doesn’t want to recognise it anymore.
Jordan Peele’s unnerving survival horror outing, Us opens in 1986 America when Adelaide, a young black girl (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents while visiting a boardwalk carnival on California’s Santa Cruz beach. A candied apple in hand, she ventures inside a funhouse and comes upon a hall of mirrors that provide the setup for the film’s central deceit. At the time, the funhouse is called “Shaman Vision Quest” accompanied with a caricaturish Native American figure. Years later, when a grown up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a married mother of two, revisits the beach, that funhouse has been rechristened “Enchanted Forest”, betraying no memory of its oppressive origins.
It’s the first clue that the Oscar-winning writer-director offers about the movie’s thematic preoccupation with cultural consciousness, exploring how the fickle memory of the present willingly suppresses the ugliest moments of our past. The apocalyptic and biblical Us (the film references Jeremiah 11:11 before key scenes) is primarily invested in uncovering what is at stake when our fractured past – our “tethered” self residing in tunnels – unleashes itself on a society that doesn’t want to recognise it anymore.
When young Adelaide finds herself inside the hall of mirrors, she doesn’t just witness reflections but also a version of herself: a doppelganger. The encounter traumatises her for years, rendering her paranoid and almost incapable of surviving without looking over her shoulder. But Peele doesn’t immediately tell us what transpired between the two doubles that evening, cutting instead to a sensational credit sequence that amps up the curiosity.
It’s this seething mystery of the night that comes to haunt Adelaide in present-day America when she is on vacation with her goofy husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) at their family beach house near Santa Cruz. It’s then, that Us – unfolding deliciously while toppling the tropes of a home invasion thriller – and its allegories about doubles and the divided self become clear. After a visit to that same beach, the family finds itself stalked by their creepy, murderous dopplegangers.
Dressed in red overalls (almost resembling prison clothes), these doppelgangers hold hands and stand still in the Wilson’s driveway for a few suspenseful minutes before invading their living room armed with scissors. They look just like each of the Wilsons, albeit repressed versions with animalistic tics and demonic grins. Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red (a frightening Lupita Nyong’o) is the only double who can speak (the reason behind that is revealed only in the astonishing final minutes). But even then, her hoarse voice seems tortured and her words as a result, are mechanical; the rest of them communicate in croaking yells.
Us, like Get Out, is about the ramifications of oppression. Monkeypaw Productions
Us, like Get Out, is about the ramifications of oppression.
Nyong’o, a remarkable performer, inhabits her two roles with such distinct single-mindedness (a ballet sequence harks back to Black Swan with a fluid and ingenious assault set-piece) that her mere presence elevates the serpentine moral and political universe of Us. If Get Out looked outward while exploring the sweep of racial tensions in present-day America, Us looks inward at the part of our collective identities that we’re willing to discard, unaware that they might lead us instead to self-destruction.
Us, like Get Out, is about the ramifications of oppression and possession. In that sense, Us – the title can also be read as U.S. – can’t not concern itself with America: its appearance of unity and its constant othering. Within minutes of meeting her double, Adelaide asks, “What are you?” and pat comes the reply, “We’re Americans.” In fact, one of the film’s main leitmotifs hinges on a performative show of solidarity – the 1986 charity drive, “Hands Across America”, an anti-poverty campaign where Americans raised money for the homeless by holding hands from coast to coast.
At the time, President Ronald Reagen held hands in front of the White House while his government was being criticised for cutting short programmes designed for the homeless. Peele uses this landmark event to not only signify the divisiveness that comes to the fore once the mask of unity is peeled, but also connects it to the present. Us ends with a spectacular shot of the oppressed doubles holding hands to recreate the “Hands Across America” campaign. But now, it’s an act that under the Trump administration, acquires sinister meaning.
As Get Out made evident, Peele can be regarded as an attentive filmmaker with the mind of an anthropologist. Us doesn’t just further that reputation, but also cements the expansive scope of his ambitions. Through the film, he builds and sustains suspense, while excavating the boundaries that we, as individuals and nations hurriedly draw within ourselves to maintain a social order. Peele questions that very order with his theory of aboveground and underground halves making up a whole, as well as challenges it: In Us, for instance, it’s Adelaide, a black female protagonist, who is its lead, saviour, and villain – there’s no place for “white saviours” (Although, Elisabeth Moss delivers the year’s creepiest make-up routine).
Us is steeped in pop-culture references (It evokes The Shining in more than one place and the protagonists wear “Jaws” and “Thriller” t-shirts) that all point towards its larger cultural lexicon of inner demons. It remains unusually busy in a way that catching up with its ideas can sometimes feel like an exercise that hinders the process of experiencing them. For instance, it’sthe film’s final reveal that holds the key to its larger puzzle, even though Peele doesn’t worry too much about tying up all the disparate threads of Us’s details. The delayed arrival of this twist – no less than a punch to the gut – might make the experience of deciphering Us and mapping its numerous Easter eggs almost unrewarding without a second viewing. But it doesn’t make the film and Peele’s vision any less extraordinary.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.